If you wonder what the past half-century of cultural theory boils down to, it might be this: When we look at a photograph these days, we are forced to think as much about who made the picture as who is represented.
Consider a recent article in The Atlantic, in which writer Christina Davidson tracked down descendants of an Alabama family featured in Walker Evans’s WPA-era photographs and James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. She describes how Agee’s book inspired her own attempts to document the lives of “ordinary people struggling under extraordinary circumstances.” The relatives of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs, however, have a different take: They felt “exploited” and “humiliated.”
David Goldblatt’s photos of South Africa under apartheid, on view at the Jewish Museum, feel a world a way from that scenario—and yet uncomfortably close. Goldblatt is a virtuoso documentarian in the vein of Evans or Dorothea Lange. Like Eugene Smith, he worked in the photo-essay format. His oeuvre is a model liberal humanist enterprise. The show even includes a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men displayed in a vitrine.
Goldblatt photographed ordinary people—miners, shopkeepers, servants, homemakers, and children—rather than riots or policemen “bashing people in the head,” as he put it. Violence is implicit, however: A 15-year-old black boy wears casts on both arms after an encounter with police; a man sits among rubble in a district razed by the military. Everyone is implicated, from scout leaders to teenage girls in a supermarket swimsuit contest, who look like Garry Winogrand grotesques.
There is also the inescapable grand narrative: Goldblatt was a Jew whose parents migrated from Lithuania, victims of persecution themselves. Seeing these images in the Jewish Museum, we are not so subtly reminded that Jews have been powerful agents of social change, from the civil rights movement in the U.S. to South Africa.
With Zwelethu Mthethwa—whose show “Inner Visions” is now at the Studio Museum—there’s a shift. He’s a contemporary, black South African, and his subjects are, too. His photographs follow in the tradition of African portrait photography, most famously represented by the Malian photographer Seydou Keïta. But where Keïta and his peers made black-and-white photographs to hang in people’s homes and the subjects were involved in fashioning their own images, often using props and costumes from his studio, Mthethwa is an artiste in the Western model.
He takes the documentary model and combines it with the studio mise-en-scène scenario. Then he blows it up into Düsseldorf/Vancouver School scale, in color, and plugs in popular African portrait photo-motifs: shallow space, painterly juxtaposition of patterns and colors, double portraits in which two people dress alike. (Before in vitro fertilization, sub-Saharan Africa had the highest incidence of twins in the world—and a raft of doppelgänger philosophies to go with it.)
Mthethwa is a formalist for whom the sitter is more of an accessory than a raison d’être. His works are “untitled” because, he says, “I come from a culture where the collective is more significant than the individual”—except, of course, when it comes to attribution: He is the only one identified as the artist/author of these works. The photos show how aesthetic sensibilities flourish even in extreme poverty. Labels from food cans and newspaper circulars paper the interiors in his photos. It’s like Warhol without the irony; commodities as decorative fodder, without the critique.
At Yossi Milo, vernacular photographs have migrated to the art world, just as Keïta’s did. Here, the circumstances are even more curious, though: Both the photographers and subjects of these photos are unknown. The pictures represent a practice in northern Brazil—now obsolete, thanks to digital photography—in which people would take small, black-and-white, basically ID photos of themselves to dealers who sent them out to studios where they were enlarged and doctored with paint.
The practice of painting on photographs has existed in many parts of the world, but it takes on particular significance here, since the people in the photographs were generally poor. By having suits, ties, or jewelry painted on their photographs, they could literally change their social position—in images, if not in real life.
The concept of an image producer becomes blurred, since the subjects themselves (or, in the case of children, their parents) are prescribing how they want themselves presented. The situation is even stranger at either end of the age spectrum: An infant with jewelry and a full head of painted hair looks like a miniature matron; an elderly person with a dark mane becomes a young woman with premature wrinkles. There’s even a painted photo of a dead man. The original in the catalog shows him in his coffin; the painted one upgrades him to something like napping condition.
Unlike Goldblatt’s attempt to be “factual”—which we post-postmoderns tend to read through the slant of authorship—the “Retratos” are saturated with the consciously altered or fabricated realism found in midcentury Latin American fiction. Like Mthethwa’s photographs, there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in them, whereas Goldblatt’s are rooted in stark, black-and-white Western guilt.
There are some scintillating overlaps in these shows. Goldblatt’s includes a 1955 diptych of a black Johannesburg photographer making a plein air portrait, with a clunky, 19th-century-style camera, as well as pattern motifs in interiors and an advertising-circular lineup in the supermarket behind the swimsuit competition. The self-styled domestic spaces of Mthethwa’s subjects are echoed in the fabricated identities of the “Retratos.”
And in all three shows, there’s the distinct play between subject and producer. It ranges across the spectrum, from the roving, critically selective gaze of the maverick photojournalist to the canny African art star to the aspirational Brazilian photo consumer. And yet, all three bodies of work ended up in white-cube art spaces in New York, a context that tends to flatten such distinctions. Which is where we come in. Because if we’re looking actively rather than passively at these images, it’s our responsibility to complete them.